On open access, Stanford's leadership falters

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

There is nothing quite like the ecstasy that follows the eleventh-hour discovery of the perfect source for one's research paper. Reading the abstract, everything starts to fit, and this capstone citation will end the drafting process after days of weaving different sources. Then, that ecstasy is suddenly replaced with virulent anger as the screen announces that access can be bought for a measly $35.

Stanford University is gifted to have the resources to purchase thousands of journal subscriptions. Nonetheless, no budget, however large, can provide access to the immense number of published journals. Invariably, a critical article is not accessible by researchers at this school. As library budgets are cut nationwide due to the economic recession, it is time for universities to rethink the academic publishing model. The answer lies in open access journal articles.

This need was answered last week by a consortium of schools calling itself the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity. A mouthful of a title, but one with a very simple goal: to place open-access publishers on an equal footing with their more common subscription-based competitors.

The five schools that joined the compact are Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT and our rivals across the Bay, Berkeley. Stanford's name is quite conspicuously absent from this list. Our school has been one of the leaders of this movement for many years, and thus, it is discouraging to see that other schools are carrying the torch for this necessary push.

To understand the systemic problems of journal publishing, we need to look at some of the policies and economics that prevent research articles from being freely distributed.

First, professors generally lose the copyright on their articles when they submit it to a journal for publication. This means that a professor must pay the publisher to make copies of his or her own original work. This is part of the reason why course readers are expensive, and why freely-distributing articles can be difficult to accomplish - it's illegal in many cases.

If that were not outrageous enough, most journals are run by professors who provide editorial and peer review services, generally without compensation (such "service" can count for tenure). The profits of the journal do not go back to those who write the articles, nor to those who edit or peer review them. It only goes back to those who run the journal's subscriptions.

Another major roadblock is that many journals are published by non-profit academic societies, who rely on the revenues from journals to sustain their operation. The Massachusetts Medical Society is not-widely known except for publishing the New England Journal of Medicine - one of the medical field's top journals. While these groups goals are often compatible with open-access, their actions tell a very different story.

The alternative to subscription models - open-access - are hardly cesspools of academic thought. The Public Library of Science runs several open-access journals, such as PLoS Biology and PLoS One, that are highly regarded. These journals have the same high standards and peer review policies, but alter the economics to increase access to the public and universities.

Stanford has taken on this issue with force in the past. Last year, Stanford's School of Education became the first institution of its kind to require that all faculty articles be openly available. While this was after an announcement by Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences in a similar initiative, it was an example of Stanford leadership at its finest.

With the announcement of this new consortium, Stanford appears to be trending behind its peer institutions in this battle over publishing. As one of the best schools in the country, Stanford has a disproportionate influence on the outcome of this competition. Like McDonald's or Wal-Mart, a policy change by Stanford can have broad repercussions throughout the industry. Few journals can afford to have researchers from Harvard, Stanford and MIT blacklisted. We are the ones in power.

It is ironic that the educational institution at the forefront of the Internet revolution would seem to be so slow to realize the benefits of open publishing. Stanford's record includes creating one of the best digital repositories of academic articles with HighWire Press (itself possessing a strong record regarding openness - their website states that they have made nearly 2 million articles free). Stanford is also part of Google's Books Project, which aims to digitize all books for online access.

I sincerely hope that Stanford was simply not notified that this new consortium was being formed. Yet, I remain skeptical. Stanford is one of the most obvious candidates to join such a consortium, especially since our peer institutions constitute the founding members. Our motto at Stanford is "The Wind of Freedom Blows". Let us take that motto to heart and open up the best research on Earth. Join the coalition and fight for open-access.